Women have drastically altered the landscape of the music industry. Previously dogged by sexism, female musicians have rectified men’s misperceptions that ladies can’t rock. The culture shift spans generations. The next wave of girls is hitting the scene early with rock camps springing up all over the country. Women are finally getting their comeuppance in the music world. Or so it would appear.
“We seem to move a few steps forward and a few steps back,” according to Carla (DeSantis) Black, a pioneer of the women in music front and founder of a new program Musicians for the Empowerment of Women (MEOW). And she should know. She’s been championing women in music for more than 15 years.
“Rock music is considered a male bastion,” Black said. “The old archetype of screaming girls, groupies, etc… Women who do more than sing pop songs are still a novelty in many genres of music: heavy metal, rap. A woman drummer like Meg White is taken less seriously than other drummers. It’s still a man’s world.”
But MEOW is out to change that. The group is dedicated to ensuring that women’s voices are represented in all facets of music — from performing and writing to studio work, booking and promotion. A new eight-week MEOW workshop in Austin, Texas, Black’s current stomping grounds, is designed to teach business-savvy ladies how to steel themselves against chauvinistic pitfalls. Girls Get Gigs! runs the gamut of industry business topics and discusses how sexism contributes to the small numbers of women in the industry. Local and national conferences, a power summit/think tank and educational and networking events are in the works, she said. That’s quite a tall order, but Black has the chops to back it up.
Black has been in the trenches with lady rockers, fighting the good fight, since her early days in a Go-Gos-inspired group. Frequent inquiries into whether the band was actually playing and singing during their shows hit home for her. Flipping through Rolling Stone magazine schooled her on the male point of view.
And so she created ROCKRGRL. In 1995, Black founded the ‘zine dedicated to women in rock. The black and white photo-copied publication morphed into a full-color glossy, bi-monthly magazine by 1999. The magazine chartered its mission as “a real departure from the condescending and patronizing tone found in other “women in music” magazines and web sites. No beauty tips or guilt trips here — just shop talk with fascinating artists,” according to Black’s web site.
Stories from the field lent fresh perspective to the magazine. Concrete Blonde singer, songwriter and bassist Johnette Napolitano once penned a classic story for ROCKRGRL “about singing a high note and losing her tampon — on two different occasions — on the same song/note. Take THAT, Rolling Stone!” Black said. Ani DiFranco and Courtney Love were a few of her favorite interview subjects. “I always enjoyed talking with the super-smart veterans who didn’t mind sharing cautionary tales,” Black said.
Artists including Sleater-Kinney, Kathleen Hannah, Tori Amos, Aimee Mann, Tegan and Sara, the Gossip, Yoko Ono and Jenny Lewis graced the cover by the time publication halted in 2005. In that year, and before in 2000, ROCKRGRL held conferences attended by industry old-schoolers and newbies alike. The networking events were a gathering of the minds for how to advance the cause of equality for rock-and-roll women. Patti Smith accepted an achievement award at the 2005 conference. Heart received the first award in 2000.
The magazine touted a circulation of 20,000 and availability in Virgin Records, Tower Records, Barnes & Noble and Borders. In 2008, the ROCKRGRL Magazine archives and conference materials were acquired by Harvard University for inclusion in their collection of American Women’s History artifacts. The 57-edition catalog of ROCKRGIRL is also housed in the Smithsonian’s Museum’s archives.
Black continues to advocate for women by coaching bands – she’s a certified life coach – and through projects like Girls Get Gigs! A woman’s work is never done when there’s injustice in the music industry.
“The majority of women who have money and power in music are young singers who are hyper-sexualized in videos — Rhianna, Beyoncé, Britney, Katy Perry,” Black said. “Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Pink, Adele and Taylor Swift break the mold a small bit. But it’s still very safe musically on the two acceptable girl topics: love and heartbreak. I long to hear something political, interesting, different, memorable. A woman who is clearly in control of her career, but whose music has a little depth and anger to it or whimsy or something. It’s like walking into an ice cream shop where the only flavor is vanilla. How do we assure young women that they can be anything when the standards of music women make are so narrow? I love the indie world, but I worry about the 14-year-old girl in some small town in Middle America whose only musical heroes are on the Disney Channel. I want more.”